04/30/2012 08:32 am ET Updated Jun 30, 2012

Mayor Bloomberg's Sustainability State of Mind

Looking at the nation's crumbling infrastructure, growing deficit and inadequate investment in science and education, it is difficult to believe our national leaders ever focus on the future. While I don't see much concern for the future in Washington, I do see it here in New York City. It is easy to see in the city's ambitious capital budget and in Mayor Bloomberg's path-breaking PlaNYC 2030 sustainability strategy.

Recently I had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion of New York City's sustainability initiatives at the Sustainable Operations Summit. Two of my panelists were leaders in New York City's government: Janette Sadik-Khan, Commissioner of Transportation, and David Bragdon, Director of the Mayor's Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability. At one point in the discussion, I asked them how we could be sure that New York's sustainability programs would survive the mayoral transition that will come in January 2014. They reminded me that many aspects of the city's plan were now codified by law, and would be required of future mayors. Mayor Bloomberg has managed to hard-wire this part of his legacy into New York's routine operation. Perhaps more important, New York's mayor had demonstrated that sustainability is not a fringe concept, but one promoted by a pragmatic and successful businessman-mayor.

In industry and at the local level of American government, I see a growing understanding of the sustainability agenda. That agenda demonstrates the connection between environmental protection and economic well-being. Here in New York City, the signs of this gathering consensus can be seen in the growth of local green markets, green buildings, bike lanes, tree planting and green infrastructure. The sustainability consensus is becoming institutionalized in local law and even in changes to the city's zoning rules. In a story about "green zoning" by New York Times reporter Mireya Navarro, she notes that:

The new regulations would encourage better insulation by allowing buildings to add up to eight inches of thickness to exterior walls without its being counted in the building's maximum footprint. Other changes would relax height limits and facade restrictions to make room for equipment like solar panels, wind turbines, awnings, green roofs, recreational decks and skylights.

This type of law might be seen as a second generation sustainability policy enhancement, and the type of change that can transform grand policy pronouncements into specific investments and actions. Energy efficiency is one of the most common sense elements of the sustainability agenda. It is hard to argue that an organization or a family is better off if they spend money on energy that they do not use.

Another visible change in New York City has been the growing number of bike lanes. While some local merchants and cab drivers don't like the lanes that have been constructed on main thoroughfares (such as Columbus Avenue), New Yorkers are voting with their pedals and in increasing numbers using bicycles for transportation and recreation. The New York City Department of Transportation tracks commuter cycling and reports a 289% increase between 2001 and 2011. In fact, commuter cycling grew 8% from 2010 to 2011. Of equal and perhaps even greater importance is that the increase in bike traffic been accompanied by an increase in bike safety. According to DOT, since 2000 there has been a "72% decrease in the average risk of a serious injury experienced by commuter cyclists in New York City."

Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030 sustainability strategy is also undergoing "second generation" changes, including a proposal to use green infrastructure to attack the city's combined sewer overflow problem and an emphasis on reducing the city's reliance on landfills for solid waste disposal. New York City has also been working to encourage development of more science and technology research as a way to incubate high tech industry. NYU is adding to its growing Brooklyn engineering campus, Cornell is coming to Roosevelt Island, and Columbia is building a new center for the study of mind, brain and behavior on its new campus on the far upper west side of Manhattan. New York City is continuing its transformation from a center of manufacture and trade to a city of services, entertainment and ideas.

The role of a place like New York in the global economy is very much a work in progress, as is the role of the United States in the global economy. We are fortunate in New York that so far in the 21st century, we've had a mayor who has understood the need to look ahead and invest in the future. The city's capital commitments from FY 2010-2014 total over $46 billion. This does not include capital spent by the Port Authority, or by the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Agency. Unfortunately the federal government does not have a capital budget. The annual budget includes long term and short term spending and the federal deficit includes both debt service and annual overspending. At the federal level it is hard to tell what part of the deficit is overspending and what part is a capital investment in the future. Fortunately, local governments are required to separate their investments and annual spending in two distinct budgets: one for annual expenditures and a second for long term capital investments. Local governments must be sure that their debt service is a reasonable and affordable proportion of the total annual expenditure budget. While Bloomberg has increased investment in the future he has done a good job of ensuring that the city's annual payment on its bonds remain an affordable percentage of New York City's over $60 billion annual budget. There is a wide consensus that New York's schools, roads, water and waste systems require constant investment.

There is also a consensus that we must pay as we go. We tried doing it the other way in the 1970's and it nearly drove us into bankruptcy. New York City has high taxes and high investment. We have a wide variety of fees and taxes, including taxes on income, sales, and property. Unlike a typical local government in the United States, we are not primarily dependent on property taxes. While people do leave New York City because of its higher taxes, in this century more have moved here than have left. People come here to take advantage of the city's economic opportunities and quality of life. About 40% of the people who live in New York City were born in other countries. The idea that high taxes can kill economic dynamism is disproven by New York City. I am not arguing that this place is heaven on earth. It's not. There is too much poverty, pollution, pain and poorly performing schools to feel that way. But in New York, our capitalists seem to understand that the market alone cannot solve these problems. In fact, our billionaire mayor is a master at bringing government, private and nonprofit organizations together to solve pressing problems.

I believe that it is a concern for the future that motivates the city's sustainability plan and its capital budget. New York City remains a place of tremendous appeal for ambitious people from every corner of the globe and every state of the union. Somehow the word continues to get out. To me it sounds a lot like Alicia Keys when she delivers this compelling verse from Jay-Z, Angela Hunte and Jane't Sewell-Ulepic:

New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of. There's nothin' you can't do. Now you're in New York. These streets will make you feel brand new. Big lights will inspire you. Let's hear it for New York.

Work, create, save, tax, invest and sustain. There is no free lunch and you get what you pay for. I think that is Mike Bloomberg's sustainability state of mind.